The Politics of Food: What is Saving my Covid-19 Era Seclusion, Decreasing the Gas Bill, and Decreasing the Food Bill?

April 8, 2020

By Patricia Sohn

Many scholars are increasingly concerned with bringing our politics home.  What issue is more about Green than the politics of food?  The politics of food invokes issues of access (who has access to which types of delicacies or simple items?); how to keep your environmental footprint as small as possible (consumption and quantities of food items); consuming less so that food items can be distributed more evenly across the globe; as well as how to keep the green in your pocket book.

Since I do not work on food politics as a research area, I will not offer food politics sources.  Nonetheless, a few thoughts:

When the stay-at-home recommendations, and then requirements, began, I thought about how to collect enough food items, and of which types, so that we would only have to go out once or twice a month in the eventuality that it would be necessary.  Fortunately, it has not been necessary.  However, my first thought was:  What do people in developing world contexts do that can remind us of good ways to have enough food around for long periods of time when you don’t have constant access to gorgeous grocery stores, as we do?  Having spent a significant amount of time living and traveling in developing world contexts, I went over old recipes and did some research on-line.

I found a solution that turns out to be my favorite sort of answer; it is cross-cultural, inter-religious, inter-linguistic, inter-regional, and it is found in just about every national community in the world.  That is:  bean soup.

Before you recoil – because we all know, instinctively, that it is the right answer – let me make a case for bean soup. 

Dried beans are inexpensive.  If you make your soup right, you can feed a family for a week on $5 or $10 USD worth of dried beans (plus other items).  They store for long periods of time (in a cool, dry place).  They take up a very small amount of space for the duration of food that they provide over time.  Producing them requires no animal flesh or animal cages.  And, almost everyone in the world has access to them; that is, dried beans do not foster food jealousies across culture, nation, continent, class, and the like.  Dried beans are an equal opportunity food in many ways.  They are a great equalizer not in every sense, but they are an equalizer in the sense of joining a world community for much of which bean soup is a primary staple of the diet.  If imagining ourselves as reading the newspaper over morning coffee in common across a country is important to fostering national solidarity, then imagining ourselves as eating our bean soup in common with people across the world can foster a sense of commonality across the globe.  A world that eats bean soup together stays together, or something like that.  That is, bean soup is solidarity-building in a real sense. We have something in common with people who eat like we do, and the reverse.

There are other benefits to bean soup.  Beans are, apparently, one of the healthiest foods that humans can ingest.  They are good for just about every part of your body’s natural processes.  They contribute to longer life, healthier life, and – for reasons I won’t mention in detail – they may even contribute to elevated moods!

So, because I like things international, and because we don’t have otherwise good sources of bulk quantities of dried beans in my town, I made my way to the local Chinese and Indian markets and bought part of a pantry-shelf worth of a wide variety of dried beans, large and small, and representing most of the colors of the universe.  Tiny beans are fun in a soup and, if you simmer the soup for two hours, they melt into the soup and make a fine miso of the broth.  I also found my way to Old World staples that make soups more fun: whole, unprocessed barley; whole sorghum, both white and red; and whole, natural millet.  The whole, natural grains hold their shape better in soups and go further in the diet (as far as consumption).

We have had soup every day during the stay-at-home orders.  Every day.  We began with Chinese Szechuan vegetable soup with a fine, thin broth and much hot red pepper; we have had thick Indian (as in South Asian) curry vegetable stews; we have had North African light curry vegetable soups; and we have had spicy Mediterranean minestrones.  We have tried thin broth, heavy broth, stewed broth, and miso-ed.  It is all fine and delicious.  And it makes the draw on other parts of the refrigerator and pantry lighter, meaning fewer trips to the grocery; less time spending money on gas driving around the county for food; and significantly lower food bills.  In all ways, it has been a very good thing!

Another common part of our soup answer has been vegetable soup with beef broth, and in a few cases, chicken broth.  Using a good bouillon, either organic or otherwise made with sea salt, gives both nutrients and taste without the expense and unequal access questions related to meat.  Other food items can have meat if necessary.  Our soups do not.  (I am not suggesting turning away from meat entirely, as some do.)

Sometimes we have used Asian noodles in the soups: udon, ramen, soba, rice, and other types of noodles offer light, nutritious variety.  Most of these are available in quantities at Chinese grocers.  And, both Chinese and Indian markets carry quantities of a number of types of grains, such as those mentioned above, which work nicely in soups and even in pilafs.

One bowl of bean soup per day increases health, decreases the draw (e.g., consumption) on the pantry as well as on less healthy foods, and, for all of these reasons, decreases expenses.  (I sometimes have it as a side for a second meal as well, but only if it is a very fine broth.)  It decreases cooking time, since you can make one large soup every couple of days.  And it makes home-cooked, nutritious food available — “fast” – right from the refrigerator.  (Just a note: I would not try living exclusively on bean soup, as without enough water and other food items in the diet, beans, and even bean soup, can cause a monster headache and other ills!)

Because of the new health claims about Turmeric, and my dislike of supplements, I have leaned toward light curries, or, better yet, coconut curry with a lightly miso-ed broth for my soups.  Add small quantities of your favorite vegetables, perhaps some frozen corn, fresh onions and potatoes; or spicy greens; or fresh spinach; maybe a can of spicy tomatoes, etc.  I add NO SALT other than the small amount of bouillon; with added salt, soup as a staple may hurt rather than help.  I use soybean paste in every soup.  And I simmer, depending upon the size and hardness of the beans, between one and two hours.

To make a light miso-broth, choose several types of beans (I like to choose five or six types of dried beans @ 1/3 cup each for an 8-quart, bean-centered soup; you can use half that many beans and more vegetables and still have a great bean soup).  Make sure that two or three of the bean types are tiny-to-small.  Tiny red (e.g., orange) lentils cook well and add flavor, as do various types of mung beans or other small beans.  Including a smaller red bean is good for making a miso-type broth.  Larger whole dried green peas, organic split chick peas, and small limas are also great.  Boil, then simmer for two hours.  Add any bouillon; soybean paste (2 heaping tbsp @ 8 qt soup); and spices with the beans.  Add any grains and vegetables at one hour.  I add NO OIL other than that included in the bouillon.  I often do add coconut milk at the end.  NO SALT and NO OIL help make the soup healthy as a staple.  It can also mean you can afford to have the more nutritious coconut milk, which has some natural fats in it.  (I do this with an almost no-meat and some fish diet; others can take both coconut milk and meats, health-wise.)

For spices, choose your favorite curry spice mix (I keep curry powder, Turmeric, & chili pepper powder zip-locked in the freezer because they can go bad quickly).  In an 8-quart ceramic non-stick pot, I use two or three tablespoons of curry spice mix; a tablespoon of Turmeric; a teaspoon each of cumin powder, cumin seeds, ginger powder, and coriander seeds (not powder); a quarter teaspoon white pepper; and red chili pepper powder or cayenne to taste. 

Bean soup made with dried beans can be delicious  It is a pan-human solution to both quantity and quality of food access and nutrition.  Do it with a mix of international spices over time, or go more traditional in your own context.  Who knows, maybe it will become a good habit – and a small contribution to making a small eco-footprint, food coexistence, and world peace – that may come out of this crisis.


Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is an associate professor. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of courts and politics, religion and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society.

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